Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life

Reviewed by Meredith Wise

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life
By Paul Mariani
Viking, 2008
496 pages, $34.95

“To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”: in this line, Hopkins could have been speaking of the treatment he has received from his biographers. Two full-length lives have already been published, and both, while impeccably researched, fail to credit the reality of Hopkins’ spiritual life. Norman White’s lack of sympathy for Hopkins’ beliefs translates into a frequent distaste for Hopkins himself. Robert Martin’s friendlier tone is a relief, but he devotes too much space to the conjecture that Hopkins had a crush on Robert Bridges’ male cousin. And for both writers, Hopkins is ultimately a tragic figure who destroyed himself with needless mortifications.

Readers of Hopkins thus have reason to rejoice over Paul Mariani’s new life of their beloved poet.

In addition to being an accomplished poet and biographer of poets (Hopkins is the fifth he has treated), Mariani is a Catholic with close ties to the Jesuits through his eldest son, who is a Jesuit priest. His comprehensive account of Hopkins’ life includes the most up-to-date research (for instance, the hypothesis that Hopkins suffered from Crohn’s disease), but its most important strength is its joyful Catholic perspective. Mariani’s Hopkins is the Hopkins we meet in the journals, sermons and retreat notes–Hopkins on his own terms. The grandeur of God both sustains him and consumes him:

[T]his way of seeing into the heart of things would eventually cost him everything, for it would mean giving himself over to this new reality, deeper and more satisfying than anything he had ever felt, an unbearable lightness everywhere about us, and only the insulation of self-preoccupation keeping the self from feeling its staggering, terrifying sweetness and tenderness.

The great strength and slight weakness of Mariani’s project shows clearly in the way he approaches Hopkins’ first Long Retreat with the Jesuits. In contrast to Norman White, who relied on the testimony of a disillusioned former Jesuit, Mariani decided that he needed to make the retreat himself in order to understand how it affected Hopkins, and he recorded the experience in Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius. He found that the Exercises transformed his understanding of Hopkins, and his own life besides. Yet in the biography he spends very little time on this pivotal event. For most non-Catholics, Hopkins’ vocation is a stumbling block, and it would help to get a better picture of his first retreat and the “horror and the havoc and the glory of it.” In this light, Norman White’s biography is valuable precisely because of its vivid harshness. But it is in Mariani’s biography that Hopkins is allowed to impart wisdom instead of just exhibiting symptoms. When White shows us Hopkins advising Bridges to give alms even to the point of inconvenience, we are meant to dismiss him as inconsiderate and neurotic. In Mariani’s unadorned telling of the same episode, we are challenged by Hopkins’ words; we are Bridges, and we must weigh the precept for ourselves. This aspect of Mariani’s work is especially useful for Catholics. We are not permitted to turn Hopkins into our cheerleader: like Ignatius of Loyola or Thérèse of Lisieux, he rattles us and makes us want to change our lives. And the discovery that Mariani wants us to make from his life is this:

To realize that a tradition of Christian poetics is out there, fresh and invigorating and new, that a Sacramental poetics which might illuminate our world is not a fantasy but a real possibility, and that Hopkins did this, showed us the way, that he reinvigorated the language and–more–might reinvigorate us and our world so that we could see it as if for the first time–that is something worth pursuing.


  1. Dena says

    Wonderfully well done. And a reminder that the Catholic perspective is not only unique but very necessary (for logic’s sake) in matters Catholic–like a biography of Hopkins, for example.

  2. says

    Very good review. I’ve read this book and learned much I never suspected about Gerard Manley Hopkins. He seems to have had nothing but grief and isolation most of his life, which was a kind of dry martyrdom. Robert Bridges, a “friend,” who was trusted by Hopkins with his poetry prevented Hopkins’ work from being published while he was alive, and only the discovery by Virginia Wolfe and Aldous Huxley after Hopkins’ death led to their insistence on the publication of Hopkins’ poetry.

    I picked up the reviewed book from the 1st floor of the Santa Clara University library one night on the way out of the library after I had heard Mariani speak of Hopkins and some of his own writings in a 3rd floor lecture room above. I had come to that talk only serendipitiously because I had first met the author’s son, Paul Mariani, Jr., at a Jesuit priest, at a Church Music Colloquium in Washington. A few years later, Fr. Mariani, SJ, surprised me when he came to a TLM at the Oratory where I was going to Mass regularly soon after he was hired to teach at Santa Clara University a few blocks away. And I was looking for his name at the SCU website when I found out about the talk. Fr. Mariani’s parents were in town because he was about to make his final vows as a Jesuit.

    One of the charming things I learned from the Marianis is that Paul Sr. used to read Hopkins to Paul Jr. while he was watching the baby when his wife was otherwise occupied. So little Paul heard Hopkin’s poems first while sitting in one of those old plastic baby seats on his daddy’s desk. Paul Jr. is now in his 40s, and I think of him as one of the good solid Jesuits, a Gerard Manley Hopkins Jesuit.